ProPublica

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Why (and How) We Use Creative Commons for Our Stories

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(Image: Flickr)

This piece was commissioned by Nieman Lab for the tenth anniversary of Creative Commons, and was published initially by them.

Happy birthday, Creative Commons.

ProPublica has made important use of Creative Commons since our launch four and a half years ago. While we make a few exceptions at the request of publishing partners, our preference (and our general practice) is to make all of our stories available for republication under a Creative Commons license (in our case, the “Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs” version), with some extra requirements specific to our needs. The terms are described on a page headed “Steal Our Stories,” which is, in turn, linked to from every page on our site. Moreover, every story has a “republish” button, which makes republishing our stories and complying with the license easy: Pushing that button reveals a box containing an easy to copy-and-paste version of the story using only common html tags, without multimedia or other elements that often make republishing difficult in content management systems. The code also contains our special tracking tag (more on that later).

In the last year, republication of ProPublica stories under our CC license has increased dramatically. Through November, we’ve recorded more than 4.2 million page views this year for authorized reprints of our work, which is up 77 percent over the same period in 2011, and is the equivalent of an additional 29 percent on top of the traffic to our own web site.

Among the literally thousands of sites that have reprinted ProPublica stories in 2012 alone are Ars Technica, the Atlantic Wire, CBS News, the Charlotte Observer, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Foreign Policy, the Houston Chronicle, the Huffington Post, the Las Vegas Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Miami Herald, MinnPost, Minnesota Public Radio, Mother Jones, MSNBC, Nature, NBCNews.com, the Newark Star-Ledger, the New Haven Register, the New York Daily News, Nieman Journalism Lab, the San Jose Mercury News, Scientific American, the Seattle Times, Slate, Talking Points Memo, the Tampa Bay Times, the Trentonian, USA Today, the Utne Reader, Wired and Yahoo News.

Why do we do this? ProPublica's mission is for our journalism to have impact, that is for it to spur reform. Greater reach -- the widest possible audience -- doesn’t equate to impact, but it can help, and certainly doesn’t hurt. So we encourage it. And, of course, we started in 2008 with almost no audience or reputation at all, and needed -- and still need -- to increase the circle of people who know us, and our work. CC helps us achieve that goal.

There are a few catches, though. Our stories are (we hope) carefully crafted, and often a bit tricky -- controversial, frequently somewhat damning. So we insist that they be reprinted in full, essentially without editing. The “NoDerivs” part of the CC license makes that requirement very straightforward. And we are interested in readers coming back to our website to read related stories and see related multimedia, so NoDerivs helps us require that internal links in a story be maintained. In addition, while we're a non-profit, we see no reason why others should be able to sell our work without sharing the proceeds with us, so we prohibit commercial use of our stories via the “NonCommercial” license. We define “non-commercial” to mean that the stories themselves may not be sold, nor may advertising be sold specifically against them. We try not to be commercially naïve, and we're hardly anti-capitalist, so we're fine with ads appearing on pages along with reprints of our stories, and we are happy to have our stories appear behind paywalls or count against pay-meter thresholds.

One other thing: we do want to keep track of all this activity, so that we can understand how our material is being used, and can report to you and others (including funders and our own Board) what’s being republished where, and roughly the size of the audience for the republished stories, just as we did above. So we created a simple JavaScript beacon that we call Pixel Ping. We designed it, working with developers at DocumentCloud, to be as lightweight as possible and so that it doesn’t violate, either in spirit or letter, the privacy policies of the sites that republish our work. Pixel Ping simply counts the number of times our stories are read on sites that republish them. It doesn’t collect any information about visitors, and it neither sets nor reads browser cookies. It’s open source, too.

These extra requirements, set out on our Steal Our Stories page, effectively constitute our own glosses on the CC license we employ.

Creative Commons solves a particular problem for us -- how to encourage republication at scale without tying up staff in negotiating deals and policing unauthorized uses. We've found it an invaluable aid in building our publishing platform, in reaching additional readers, and in maximizing the chance that the journalism we publish will have important impact.

I like ProPublica a whole lot, and you make a wonderful, important contribution. But when you brag about offering your stories free, you should explain that you’re able to do that only because you’re being paid by other means, by foundation grants.

Much of the Creative Commons, information-should-be-free enthusiasm is based on activity that is supported by other means, so it’s not really free, is it. It’s just found a different revenue stream. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. In fact, it’s almost mandatory nowadays, what with the collapse of traditional revenue streams for journalism. So all power to you. But I think you should include your revenue model in the frame when you explain your business model.

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